These are literary works whose influence has been, and still is, strongly felt. These books all depict human beings living their lives, going about their business, loving, dying, being born, in different places throughout time.
1. The First Folio – William Shakespeare
The First Folio is the collection of Shakespeare’s plays, published posthumously as Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies in 1623 compiled by Shakespeare’s friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, and it contains 36 plays.
Ben Jonson, remarked that Shakespeare ‘was not of an age, but for all time’ .He has been proved right as that was four hundred years ago. Shakespeare is now the most loved and revered writer in English history. Not only in England but around the world.
The influence of the plays in the First Folio is immense. His plots have inspired countless adaptations and spin-offs, and continue to do so. Millions who do not realise they are quoting Shakespeare when they say things like “a fool’s paradise”; “the game is up”; “dead as a doornail”; “more in sorrow than in anger”; “cruel, only to be kind”; and hundreds more. His phrase-making, has immeasurably greatly the English language.
The plots address almost every situation that human beings of any culture may be confronted with and for each of those situations there are profound observations from the characters. The First Folio is a mirror in which we can reflect themes of love and hate, war and peace, freedom and tyranny.
The First Folio is the book we open when we look for an apt way of commenting on something.
2. The Bible – various authors
The Bible is a collection of writings ranging over a thousand years. There are two main books – The Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament claims to be a history of the Jews while The New Testament depicts the life and death of a man-god, Jesus of Nazareth, and the spread of Christianity by several evangelists, notably St Paul.
Archaeologists have been unable to verify the historical validity of any of the events in The Old Testament and it is clearly a collection of fictional stories. Orthodox Jews in today’s world live their lives in obedience to the law laid down by the fictional prophet, Moses, a character in the early chapters of the Old Testament. Regarding the New Testament, no-one has been able to find any evidence of the existence of the New Testament’s hero in history or the events or the accounts of his life and death. It is also clearly fictional.
And yet, apart from the works of Shakespeare, the Bible has had an incredible influence on history. The influence of the New Testament has penetrated almost every part of the world apart from a few countries that ban it in favour of their own sacred books.
The King James Authorised Bible, was produced at the same time as Shakespeare’s works, and quotations from the two are often confused as they are both written in Early Modern English.
The Christian religion, based on both books, spread around the world and is the largest global religion today.
3. The Odyssey – Homer
The Odyssey is attributed to Homer, the name given by the ancient Greeks to the author of the two epic poems, which are the central works of ancient Greek literature – the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Osyssey is the story of the journey home of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, after the Trojan wars.
It is about his adventures on his ten year journey home. By the time he gets home he has been away for twenty years. His family and friends have given him up for dead.
The characters and the stories have been an inspiration to writers for three thousand years. The journey is full of adventures, some dangerous because of the temptations they provide and some because of physical dangers.
The influence the Odyssey has had on western culture and literature is immense. Homer invented the Greek gods we are familiar with as well as the Greek heroes and villains. The stories are full of action and suspense, set in alien places with alien characters. Star Trek was heavily influenced by the Odyssey and episodes of the original series are directly based on the Odyssey.
4. Epic of Gilgamesh – Unknown
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a Mesopotamian epic poem dating from 2100 BCE. It is spoken of as the world’s earliest great work of literature and it is he oldest surviving fiction manuscript. Only a few tablets of it have survived but scholars have reconstructed most of the writing of the twelve tablets. It is derived from five Sumerian poems about Gilgamesh, king of Uruk.
The poem is in two parts. The first part tells the story of a wild man, Enkidu, who the gods have created to stop Gilgamesh from oppressing the people of Uruk.
In the second part Gilgamesh sets out on a dangerous journey to discover the secret of eternal life. He learns that he will never find it as when the gods created human beings they made death a part of being human. But Gilgamesh achieves immortality through his great deeds.
The Epic has been tremendously influential. It is one of the foremost sources for the Old Testament. Most obvious is the Epic’s accounts of the Garden of Eden, the lyrics of Ecclesiastes and the great flood.
The stories have inspired many modern and contemporary works of art, music and literature.
5. Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
This is a Spanish novel published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615 by Miguel de Cervantes. Its full title is The Ingenious Nobleman Mister Quixote of La Mancha. It is one of the earliest European novels and one of the most influential. It is generally considered to be the best novel ever written.
The novel tells the story of the adventures of a Spanish nobleman, Alonso Quixano, who is obsessed with chivalric romances. He becomes unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy and declines into insanity. He determines to set out on a mission to revive the chivalry that he’s read about in books. He casts himself as a knight, assumes the name, Don Quixote de la Mancha, and recruits a neighbouring farmer, Sancho Panza, as his squire. He sets out and interprets everything and everyone as an element of the romantic story he is living out. Sancho Panza looks after him, offering a witty response to Don Quixote’s mad ramblings.
Don Quixote is the most influential of all novels. The adventures are quoted and used repeatedly in western culture. Cervantes was every bit as creative, both in his storytelling and his language, as Shakespeare was.
The main influence of the novel is how it influenced fictional writing in the subsequent centuries. In the 20th-century prose writers departed from the traditional classic realism in to ‘postmodernism.’ Cervantes invented techniques to tell his story that have been rediscovered by modern writers, such as metafiction, a device in which aspects of the narrative draw attention to the fact that the reader is reading a fiction; intertextuality, – an interrelationship between texts, intended to add layers of depth to a text, relying on the readers’ prior knowledge and understanding of the other texts.
6. Paradise Lost – John Milton
Paradise Lost, 1667, is an epic poem by John Milton. The poem work on which Milton is usually considered one of the greatest English poets.
Paradise Lost is based on the biblical story of the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by the fallen angel, Satan, and their expulsion from the Garden. Satan and the other angels have rebelled against God and have been banished to Tartarus, another name for Hell. Satan leads the other rebel angels in a revenge campaign. His mission is to disrupt and corrupt God’s creation – Earth – and his other creation, Mankind. Satan confronts the perils of the Abyss, and Chaos, the territory outside of Hell, and eventually enters Earth, and then the Garden of Eden itself. The creation myth in Genesis is short and sketchy. It is that we get most of our notions about the Fall of Mankind from Paradise Lost.
Paradise Lost has been very influential on subsequent writers. Countless writers have been inspired to write their own versions of the Genesis myth and to rewrite Paradise Lost in their own ways. For example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein offers the same questions of authority, the relationship between creator and created, and the created’s longing for a female partner.
There have been many films and musical works based on Paradise Lost, and the poem has inspired innuerable paintings and sculptures.
7. The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri
The Divine Comedy is the most famous Italian literary work. It is a long narrative poem written between 1308 and 1320. The poem is divided into those three parts. It’s about a vision of the afterlife, in which Dante, visits Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Heaven (Paradiso). That represents allegorically, the soul’s journey towards God, from the darkest depths of Hell to the light and joys of Heaven.
The Divine Comedy is a religious poem. However, the science of Dante’s time is evident in the poem. The Purgatorio repeatedly refers to the implications of a spherical Earth with the different stars visible in the southern hemisphere, the position of the sun and the different time zones of the Earth.
The Divine Comedy’s greatest influence is that it became the image of life after death in Western culture. it has been a source of inspiration for artists for almost seven centuries. There are many references to Dante’s work in literature, music and art.
8. Fairy Tales and Stories – Hans Christian Andersen
Some critics maintain that ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ is the greatest short story ever written. In a few short pages Andersen illuminates the themes of ambition, hypocrisy, vanity, cynicism, and innocence – all in the form of an amusing and seemingly simple children’s story.
Andersen immortalised Danish folk tales by transforming them into fiction that fully engages the reader and captures the imagination. His other sources were mediaeval European literature, ancient poems and the fairy tales of the German Romantics
Andersen is the father of the modern fairy tale. The impact of this collection of stories on children’s literature is incalculable. The tales are translated into scores of languages and the most famous characters in them, such as The Little Mermaid, The Little Match Girl, The Tin Soldier, and The Ugly Duckling, are famous around the world. There are picture books, films, plays, and operas, and Andersen has himself been portrayed in films. The tales still stand as models for children’s writers and a source of inspiration for them.
9. Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-Four is an English novel by George Orwell, published in 1949. It is a dystopian novel set forty-five years later in 1984.
Nineteen Eighty-Four has become a guide for democratic societies of what they need to bear in mind as technology advances. We are warned, in the text of Nineteen Eighty-Four, of where it may lead if we are not very watchful. Our 21st- century world is characterised by security and surveillance cameras, interactive television, the interception of emails and other electronic communications, and other such developments. Moreover, the tendency of even elected leaders to attempt to take onto themselves powers that are not supported by democratic principles is something Orwell’s masterpiece predicts and warns against.
Orwell invented a new language to present the world of the novel. A number of the words and phrases are in common usage today, The use of the term ‘Big Brother’, for example, is an expression of an attempt by authority to overstep its democratic purpose. In the novel, the phrase ‘Big Brother is watching you’ is a chilling reminder to everyone that any transgression of the strict code of civil oppression will be severely dealt with.
Other terms, are ‘doublethink,’ – simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory ideas as correct; ‘thoughtcrime’ – holding unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question the approved norm; ‘thinkpol’– the Thought Police and ‘unperson’ – someone who has been deprived of his/her civil existence. Orwell encompassed all those terms under the umbrella of ‘newspeak’ the official language of Oceana – speech that uses words in a way that changes their meaning to compel people to think in a certain way.
10. Dracula – Bram Stoker
Dracula is an 1897 novel by the Irish author Bram Stoker. It is the story of a vampire, Count Dracula. He leaves his native Transylvania and goes to England in the search for victims of his undead curse. A group of men and women led by Professor Abraham Van Helsing convene to combat him, which they succeed in doing.
Dracula caught the imagination of Victorian readers and has become a classic, still widely read. Its protagonist, Count Dracula, has become one of the most recognised fictional characters. Critics have inevitably classed Dracula as a genre novel but it falls into so many of their categories – vampire literature, horror fiction, gothic novel, invasion literature, crime, mystery, the supernatural – that categorisation is problematic. It is much more than that – a fine novel, dealing with Victorian sexuality, British culture, and more, and, moreover, it is a significant addition to the novel genre in its own right.
Dracula’s main influence is that it has put the vampire at the centre of popular culture with its burgeoning body of works in film, television, and fiction.
And that’s our take on the greatest works of fiction through history. What do you think of our picks – any that don’t deserve to be there? Or any novels that haven’t made the list you think we should add? Let us know in the comments section below!